Wesley, Susanna (1669–1742)
Wesley, Susanna (1669–1742)
English mother of John and Charles Wesley whose "kitchen prayers" were thought to be the seed of the Methodist movement . Born Susanna Annesley in London, England, in 1669; died at Bunhill, London, in 1742; daughter of Dr. Annesley (a minister); marriedSamuel Wesley (a London curate), in 1689 (died 1735); children: of 19 confinements only 10 survived, including daughters Emilia Wesley (1692–1771); Susanna Wesley (1695–1764); Maria Wesley (1696–1734); Mehetabel Wesley (1697–1750); Anne Wesley (b. 1702); Martha Wesley (1706–1791); Kezziah Wesley (1709–1741); sons Samuel Wesley, Jr. (b. 1690); John Wesley (b. 1703, founder of Methodism); Charles Wesley (b. 1708, co-founder of Methodism and writer of 6,500 hymns, including "Hark! The Herald-Angels Sing").
Born in London in 1669, Susanna Wesley was the youngest child of Dr. Annesley, a prominent dissenting minister who gave every attention to her education. She learned Greek, Latin, French, logic and metaphysics and was deeply interested in the religious discussions of the day. At age 19, she met and married Samuel Wesley, a curate in London, who was earning a meager income of £30 a year. Though Samuel had also come from a strong Non-Conformist family, the couple would later decide to renounce dissent and abide by the Church of England.
In the summer of 1690, the Wesleys moved to the rural parish of South Ormsby in Lincolnshire; after seven years, they relocated to the larger parish of Epworth, where Samuel began to earn £200 per annum. During the first 20 years of this marriage which extended over a period of 46 years, Susanna Wesley had 19 children; the 15th was John Wesley (b. June 1703), destined to be the most famous preacher of his time; the 18th was Charles Wesley (b. 1705), his partner. Of the 19, only 10 survived infancy.
The Wesleys were "not the strait-laced martinets of high principle and narrow virtue that some chroniclers have tried to portray," wrote Simon Appleyard. The hot-tempered Samuel was a staunch Orangeman (a supporter of the usurping William III of Orange, champion of Protestant liberties); the stubborn but calm Susanna was a Jacobite, a supporter of the usurped James II. This led to numerous quarrels, as Susanna would refuse to say "Amen" at the end of any daily prayers that included a plea for the well-being of the king. In 1701, in a fit of pique, Samuel announced, "If we have two kings, we must have two beds," quit the Epworth rectory, and set out for London, leaving Susanna with their then six children. Differences were resolved by 1702 when the horse bearing William of Orange tripped over a molehole, killing the king. Enter Queen Anne , the family pacifier. Though she was the daughter of James II, she also supported Protestants.
That same year, Samuel was arrested for non-payment of debt (£30) and incarcerated in Lincoln Prison for three months. Four years later, "within a month of what was to prove her last confinement," a fire broke out in the Ep-worth rectory, wrote Appleyard. Susanna "staggered to safety through the front door while several of her children clambered out of a window to the sanctuary of the garden. A maid brought out the baby." But John was missing; his cries could be heard from an upstairs bedroom. Seconds before the roof fell in, he was snatched out by two neighbors, convincing Susanna that God had spared John for a special purpose. The rectory was destroyed.
Because of the family's constant struggle with poverty, the task of educating the ten children had been left to Susanna, and for six hours a day for 20 years, she continued this work. She believed in forming children's minds by "conquering their will and bringing them to an obedient temper," though she also believed in overlooking small transgressions. "Self-will is the root of all sin and misery," she said. "Whatever checks it promotes their future happiness." Each night of the week was set aside for one child. (The math holds out, for Sunday was set aside for Emilia and Susanna,
known as Sukey, Samuel, Jr., was away at school, and Kezzy was still a baby.)
Her noted son John followed her teachings, her will was his law, her letters through college were his oracles, her life was his example. "I do intend to be more particularly careful of the soul of this child, that Thou hast so mercifully provided for," she wrote in her private diary, "that I may do my endeavor to instil into his mind the principles of Thy true religion and virtue." Though they grew up under her strict and closely guided regimen, none of the Wesley children seem to have resented their mother; in fact, they matured into caring and loving adults.
In 1710, when Samuel journeyed to London to attend a lengthy convocation, he appointed a substitute curate. But Susanna found the young man's sermons so tedious that she began to hold service every Sunday evening in the rectory kitchen for the benefit of her children and servants. Word of mouth spread, others asked permission to come, until Susanna was preaching to around 200 people crammed into and out of the kitchen. Though Samuel protested on his return that it was unseemly for a woman to hold prayers, Susanna continued this practice for years in spite of hearty opposition. Many historians contend that the "kitchen prayers" were the seed of the Methodist movement.
After Samuel died in 1735, Susanna continued her ways until her own death in 1742. At her burial in Bunhill Fields, London, her son John preached one of his most eloquent and impressive sermons. She was the "mother of Methodism in a religious and moral sense," wrote Isaac Taylor, "for, her courage, her submissiveness to authority, the high tone of her mind, its independence and its self-control, the warmth of her devotional feelings, and the practical directions given to them, … were visibly repeated in the character and conduct of her son."
It is generally agreed that without the example set by Susanna Wesley, her sons would have not had the impenetrable hides needed for reforming. Wrote Appleyard: "There seems little doubt that without the strong personality and dogged persistence in the pursuit of goodness that so characterized their mother, Susanna, her sons would have been unfitted for the great reforming tasks that lay ahead of them, and the world would have been a poorer place for that alone."
Appleyard, Simon. "The Family World of the Wesleys," in This England. Winter 1984.
Stevens, Abel. The Women of Methodism; Its Three Foundresses, Susanna Wesley, the Countess of Hunt-ingdon, and Barbara Heck ; With Sketches of Their Female Associates and Successors in the Early History of the Denomination. NY: Carlton & Porter, 1866.